C.J. Fodrey scored a goal against the MSL LA Galaxy during a preseason game last month.
C.J. Fodrey, who scored a goal against the LA Galaxy during a preseason game last month, is one of four San Diego teens signed to USL Academy contracts. Photo by Chris Stone

At 17, Calvin “CJ” Fodrey is living his dream, playing with the “big boys” on the San Diego Loyal Soccer Club on a pitch at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center.

“It means everything to me to be on this team, to be able to play in front of fans in San Diego,” the Coronado teen said after Tuesday morning’s practice. 

Fodrey is one of four San Diego-based youth players added to the Loyal’s 2021 USL Championship roster under USL Academy contracts, the team announced Tuesday. They retain their amateur status and NCAA eligibility.

And it must have seemed like he was dreaming when Fodrey scored a goal for the Loyal in the second of two 60-minute preseason skirmishes against Major League Soccer’s LA Galaxy in Carson on March 30.

Landon Donovan gives direction to Josh Kenworthy, 18 (left) during a practice at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center.
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Fodrey found the back of the net on a quick play, splitting two defenders and sending in a low, rolling left-footed shot that day.

It was particularly exciting to get off that shot because he previously played for the LA Galaxy Youth Academy.

As for being guided by a soccer legend, “It’s mind-blowing to me,” Fodrey says. “My mom tells me every day: ‘I still can’t believe that you are being coached by Landon Donovan.’

“It’s an honor to be coached by Landon,” Fodrey continued. “He tells me things he did in his kind of game. I tried to learn off of him a lot.”

Donovan, the Loyal’s executive vice president of soccer operations and manager, said in a statement, “As the soccer capital of this country, we are very fortunate to have some of the very best players here in San Diego.”

“Being able to add four of them to a roster further shows our commitment to this community and that we are truly dedicated to making SD Loyal a club that our entire community can be proud of,” he added. “We can’t wait for the day when we see our first homegrown product representing SD Loyal on the field at Torero Stadium.”

Another youth chosen to contract with the Loyal is Xavi Gnaulati, 16, a midfielder from
Cardiff-by-the-Sea. He had played for Oceanside Breakers, San Diego Surf Soccer Club and Encinitas Express Soccer.

Gnaulati, who has kicked the soccer ball around since age 2, said the idea of playing for his city in front of his family and friends is really exciting.

Asked his response to being selected, he said: “I was really surprised and happy.”

Gnaulati agreed with the other youth players that the Loyal team has been welcoming and are helping him grow as an athlete and person.

Josh Kenworthy, 18, a defender from Del Sur near Rancho Santa Fe, said, “I was super-excited (upon hearing of his selection). It’s obviously a huge step up from playing with younger guys.”

Kenworthy, who began seriously considering a career in soccer in the seventh grade, says he’s been improving a lot.

“I learn a ton of things just from them giving me pointers or just from the game being so much faster than when I play with my club,” he said.

One of the most important pointers is to “stay awake.”

Kenworthy said that when he was on his youth club, which was dominating, “I don’t have a whole lot to do in the back, so sometimes I would fall asleep, something like that. Here I am always awake, always on my toes.”

He previously played for Albion SC, San Diego Surf Soccer Club and Atlanta United Academy.

Ian Mai, 16, a defender from Mission Valley, said he was buzzing at first by being selected.

“I didn’t expect it,” he said.

As with the other youth players, he hopes to either assist or score a goal for the Loyal.

Mai said his family is proud of him. And in a remark that sounds like he has been listening to his parents, he said, “I know I still have to work hard and earn my spot on the team. Nothing is handed to me. I always have keep working hard and stay humble.”

USL Academy contracts help young players accelerate their development by challenging them and allowing them to gain experience playing with and against professionals at a young age.

The four were spotted when coaches sought talent for Loyal Select, their part-time youth development program.

The youth players are also eligible to compete with Loyal Select, as well as their respective youth clubs on any given weekend as long as they are not on SD Loyal’s active 18-man roster.

The hope is that Loyal Select is the pathway to pro for all future USL Academy contract signees.

The Loyal has two more preseason matches before the season begins April 30. San Diego travels to Carson to play the Seattle Sounders at noon April 11 and hosts Cal State Fullerton at 3 p.m. April 17 in Chula Vista.

The team released its season schedule last week. The first four games will be away games.

During its 2021 season, SD Loyal will play against every team in the newly aligned Pacific Division four times as well as four out-of-division matches for a total of 32 matches.

The Loyal takes on Phoenix Rising FC at its new 10,000-seat stadium and then welcomes Las Vegas Lights FC on May 29 for the 2021 home opener.

Other notable matches include one with Loyal President Warren Smith’s former club, Sacramento Republic FC, on July 3, Aug. 28, Oct. 9 and Oct. 30.

The Loyal will face USL Championship’s newest team, Oakland Roots SC, on June 29, Sept. 11, Sept. 22 and Oct. 24. In addition, there will be an interconference matchup between two-time league title-winner Louisville City FC hosting SD Loyal on May 22.  For tickets, call (858) 465-GOAL or visit sdloyal.com/tickets.